I managed to get hopelessly lost on my way to last week’s Dirty Bomb [Steam page] event, squirrelled away in the trendy thicket of London’s Old Truman Brewery. Annoying? Yes. Fitting? Absolutely. Splash Damage has a multitude of demons to slay with its latest spin on Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory - the ever-controversial choice of a free-to-play model, the spectre of Brink, its previous stab at a new IP - but the most fearsome of these demons is surely London itself. London, a city that’s actually a bunch of medieval villages mashed into each other, where roads designed for horses struggle to find room for buses and Range Rovers. London, a metropolis blown half to bits during World War 2, then mutated into absurd, glittering shapes by overseas investors. London, where heading a mile downriver feels like setting foot on a different planet.
You couldn’t ask for a less elegant setting for a multiplayer FPS in the Team Fortress vein, where a single sightline askew can be the difference between enjoyment and fury, but the studio has done a bang-up job. In fact, one of this formidable, comfortable shooter’s greatest strengths is how it chisels readable warrens of coverspots, overlooks and chokepoints out of the capital’s beguiling weirdness. London is everywhere in Dirty Bomb, from its red letterboxes to the graceful arches of Waterloo Station, but unlike the reality, it’s seldom inconvenient. It never gets in your way.
The maps aren’t modelled directly on areas from the city but flavoured by them, often to lovely effect. Leaping a tank barrier on the Bridge map, you’ll spend a half-second admiring the pale green ironwork of London Bridge Market before making a run on the crippled extraction vehicle languishing in the other side’s clutches. Having secured and repaired the prize, you’ll peek over its carapace at the misty summit of the Shard as the beast inches towards your next objective through a bombardment of grenades. Though dinky, the environments are packed with routes and vantage points, some of which hinge on skilled use of the game’s wall-jump (characters in Dirty Bomb are as agile as those of Brink, but the parkour stuff is there to discover rather than being thrust on you). For a footsore Londoner, stumbling on these inspires a special kind of satisfaction, like realising that you can just walk between two tube stations rather than diving into the smelly commuter soup that bubbles beneath the city’s tarmac.
Dirty Bomb is set a mere five years from now, in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, with London empty of life save for the odd, mysteriously radiation-proof pigeon and bands of mercenaries with exhilarating names like “Fragger”, who duke it out over bags of pharmaceutical specimens and personal data. Another of the game’s strengths is how easily and naturally you work out what the mercenary classes do. Each is built around a couple of weapons and one or two special abilities, adding up to a style that can be guessed at from the character’s name alone. You probably don’t need me to tell you, for example, that Skyhammer is your best friend when dealing with close-knit groups in the open, or that Rhino can hold a chokepoint pretty much by himself, providing somebody watches the flanks.
There are 12 classes of Merc at the time of writing, two freely available (along with all of the modes and maps) as part of the base download each week - the rest are bought with either real cash or in-game credits. You can also buy or unlock Equipment Cases that may contain rarer loadout cards for each Merc - the same core kit plus a buff or two such as a faster cooldown for certain abilities. On the basis of a few hours’ play the monetisation seems inoffensive, with nothing to indicate that having the best Loadout cards will win a match all by itself. “The move to free-to-play - that was actually the first thing we decided on the project, funnily enough,” executive producer Steve Gaffney told me. “It’s not like we chose to make an online game, put it in a box and sell it, then changed our minds. From the outset we wanted this game to be free.” Those who’d rather fork out as in days of yore can avail themselves of the $20 Merc Starter Pack, which piles 35,000 credits and five Mercs on top of the free offerings.
Team-dependent shooters can be stodgy, obstinate things, refusing to entertain till you’ve sunk a few hours into mastering and accessorising a class. Dirty Bomb, by contrast, has the punchy immediacy of a card game. You can field three Mercs per match, flipping between them when you die to suit the situation at hand. Given that a round of flagship mode Stopwatch will see you fighting over three sets of objectives against the clock - for example: capturing an Extraction Vehicle, escorting it to a bridge where it can blow up laboratory door, then nicking off with the lab’s contents - it’s important to pick Mercs with the particulars of a layout in mind, rather than a generic hand of assault-healer-support. There’s a world of clear light between a medic like Aura and a medic like Phoenix, in terms of the geography they’re best applied to: the former’s a defender without equal thanks to her deployable health station, while the latter can revive himself when the enemy’s back is turned, which means he shines as an infiltrator.
Many of the game’s ingredients recall Brink - there’s the odd shortcut that must be unlocked by interacting with a secondary objective, the same fondness for storified graffiti, and the same Half-Lifey angularity to the near-future props scattered across the cobbled streets. This obviously warrants a measure of caution, especially as regards things like network performance. But then again, Brink was a severely over-stretched project, a new IP and approach to team-based shooting, created for consoles and PC by what was initially a team of 20 using an untried engine. It was also, perhaps, the right game at the wrong time: many of its more intriguing ideas, such as that of a multiplayer campaign, have found their way into other titles. “I think we did a lot of things right in Brink,” Gaffney reflects. “There were a lot of things that we could have done better, but the original concept was very close to what Destiny and Titanfall were, and it’s incredibly interesting to see those games do well now. We’re proud that we were able to do something unique.”
While retaining much of its predecessor’s hectic energy in terms of character and environment art, Dirty Bomb is a cleaner and more considered shooter. It has been playable in alpha and beta for the best part of two years, and makes use of Splash Damage’s proprietary Echo player analytics system - cue extensive, community-led tweaks to the maps, weapons and online infrastructure, and a sense of hard-won confidence, heading into public release. “Game design can be like moving atoms around,” Gaffney adds. “I’d say it’s definitely been that way with this.”
Dirty Bomb is due for release in June and playable now in beta. I played this at a London event hosted by Splash Damage and Nexon. Food and drink were provided.